In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul


In a Free State is set in a post-independence unnamed African country, governed by a king and a president who belong to two different tribes. At the beginning of the novel, the king who was once supported by the colonials is on the run for his life, as the president with his many allies, including the army, has overthrown the king and seized power. On the same day, Bobby – an English officer who had come to the capital for an event, hits the road to go back to the governmental compound where he lives, which is located in the southern part of the country – a territory of the king’s people. Bobby is accompanied by Linda, the wife of an acquaintance on this two day journey. Neither of these characters are likable with many flaws. Bobby, despite having feelings of commitment to serve the country, tries to sexually exploit African boys whenever an opportunity rises, and Linda, prejudiced against Africans, considers her time there to be an adventure in an exotic land seeking extramarital affairs along the way. However unappealing the two main characters are for me, the way Naipaul had written the story has some subtle beauty in it.

Linda said, ‘You know what they’re up to, don’t you?’

Bobby didn’t reply.

‘They are going to swear their oaths of hate. You know what that means, don’t you? You know the filthy things they are going to do? The filth they are going to eat? The blood, the excrement, the dirt.’

As Bobby and Linda continue their journey, they see violence escalating on the background. People flee their homes, army vehicles roar past, and on the second day they see the site where the king was executed by the army. The ferocity of the state of things are such that it made me question if it is actually a ‘free’ land, and I wonder if Naipaul intended it to be so too.

Even though I did not enjoying reading In a Free State as much as I thought I would, specially given that it won the Man Booker prize in 1971, I did realize why V. S. Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001. Naipaul is a true wordsmith, and his unnamed African state in this novel is rendered exquisitely throughout the novel…

They had been moving towards the crest of a ridge; the sky felt more open. They came out of the forest on to the bare ridge, and the valley on the other side opened spectacularly: a miniature country laid out below them, every corner filled with the same details of terraced hill and thatched hut, the smoke of cooking-fires, the wet winding paths: a view ending in miniatures of itself, dissolving in mist. The view called for exclamation.

According to the preface of the book, my edition of In a Free State only has the central novel, whereas the fuller version contains two short Indian immigrant stories. Naipaul had later felt the story of the central novel was diminished by the supporting material, which is why the novel is published on its own now. I feel like this is a novel I should reread someday, and on that day I hope to read the complete version and see if that will help me to view this book in a different light. 🙂


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